How ‘West Side Story’ Breakout Mike Faist Made an Iconic Role His Own, ‘Expectations Be Damned’

As Jets leader Riff, the Tony nominee had to translate his Broadway pop to a big screen spectacle. How does he make it look easy? Hard work, meticulous research, and something called "Jet-tivities."
WEST SIDE STORY, Mike Faist, 2021.  ph: Niko Tavernise /© 20th Century Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection
"West Side Story"
©20th Century Studios/Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that Mike Faist becomes a movie star in Steven Spielberg’s glorious “West Side Story,” if only because every moment the Tony nominee appears on the big screen seems all but lit with a giant sign flashing, “This guy is it!” Whatever it is, he has it, tearing into the key role of Jets leader Riff with a fresh intensity that handily dances the line between “terrifying” and “heartbreaking.”

Faist is no stranger to turning seemingly supporting roles into his own, from originating the role of Connor Murphy in “Dear Evan Hansen” (that’s where that Tony nomination came from; the cast also earned a Grammy and Daytime Emmy for work related to the Broadway musical) to burning up the small screen as teen cowboy Dodge in the Amazon series “Panic,” but there’s something distinctly different about his work as Riff. It’s a star turn, a calling card, a startling twist on an already-iconic role.

But don’t tell him that.

“I don’t know anything specific as to what people will say, because I don’t go on the internet, I don’t have social media,” Faist said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “I do a self-preservation thing, because … I think I learned my lesson a long time ago doing ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ of just not paying attention to any of those things. You [can] read into anything, but then at the end of the day, you have to go into the show that night and do it. A big part of what I do, or at least what I think works for me, is just protecting that head space and not paying attention to all of it, being just blindly ignorant to it all. I have to yell at my friends and family, ‘Don’t tell me anything. Stop contacting me about this. Please don’t.'”

Keeping that bubble in place might not always be easy — Faist admits that he does know people have been responding to the film, released last week, in a positive way — but one thing that’s proven to be helpful is the actor’s belief in the work he’s turned in. Of “West Side Story,” he’s resolute: “I know that it’s good.” Good responses feel natural then.

(This is around the time our Zoom is briefly interrupted by a recorded message from Faist’s mom playing out over his speakers. Absolutely nothing will keep anyone grounded more than their mother popping up, even virtually, during an interview, but this writer suspects Faist doesn’t need much grounding.)

And yet Faist’s concept of what makes a film or a show “good” remains deeply personal. Quality isn’t just what’s on the screen, it’s what it felt like making the thing. “Making this movie was a delight,” he said. “It was a really amazing experience for all of us, and then we had to let it go and then we moved about in our lives and we just kept going. I think we all wondered, ‘Was that a dream? Was that all real? Was that experience just this made-up thing?’ But the fact that it is being received well, it’s affirming because we really attacked this material and this story from a place of love and I think that people are seeing that. We just don’t feel crazy, I guess.”

Paloma Garcia-Lee as Graziella, Mike Faist as Riff, David Alvarez as Bernardo, and Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“West Side Story”Niko Tavernise

To craft a fresh Riff, screenwriter Tony Kushner went back to basics; we’re talking Shakespearean basics, steeping himself in “Romeo & Juliet” — the original inspiration for Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s musical, of course — and finding new dimensions for the character, based on Romeo’s dedicated best pal Mercutio. Faist said that interrogating Riff’s relationship with BFF and former Jets leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) through the lens of Romeo and Mercutio’s bond was “absolutely” a major part of his process. “That was the story arc that [Kushner] wanted to tell in this version of ‘West Side,'” he added.

But Faist also felt free to build Riff on his own terms, crafting a new version of the iconic Jets leader from the inside out. To get Riff’s look just right, Faist hit the books, eventually unearthing a Bruce Davidson photography book entitled “Brooklyn Gang,” first published in 1959, just two years after the setting of “West Side Story.” The photographer spent a long, sultry summer alongside the Jokers, and the result is a startling look inside the lives of shiftless young men who look and move so much like the Jets that it hurts.

“You look at those photos and you see these people, you really see the nihilism that exists, you see their inability to see past tomorrow, or even today for that matter,” Faist explained. “There’s something depressing about it. There’s something sad about it. There’s also something carnal and wild and primal about it all, too. They’re fascinating to me.”

Within the pages of “Brooklyn Gang,” Faist found Riff. “There’s one photo in particular with like four or five guys, and they’re on the Coney Island boardwalk and they’re walking, they’re just kind of like snapping and looking around,” he said. “And this one guy has this shirt off and he’s got this medallion around his neck and he’s got a ‘Mom’ tattoo on one side of his chest and his ‘Dad’ tattoo on the other side. And it’s like, that’s Riff. That’s Riff, that’s him right there.”

That particular guy shows up throughout Davidson’s book, allowing Faist continued opportunities to soak in his look, his mannerisms, his feel. “There were certain tattoos that he had that I was like, ‘We have to get that.’ He had a skunk tattoo on his shoulder, so that’s where that came from,” Faist said. “And I saw how emaciated he was and how joyous he was, and also just how uncaring, too. There was something about it, energy-wise. I was like, ‘This is who this person is.'”

Mike Faist as Riff in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“West Side Story”Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Davidson’s book provided a road map for what Riff and the rest of the Jets should look like — hungry, lithe, hard — that Faist found deeply instructive. “It was really important for me to just take on that physicality,” Faist said. “And reading other books about gangs at the time, reading how poor they were, reading the fact that they don’t have any families, reading about how at the end of the night they would pool whatever change they had left and buy cheap wine and maybe French fries, and that’s what they would have all day. They’ve got nothing. They have absolutely nothing except for each other.”

So, how to physically echo a character who has nothing? Faist cut weight. He said he lost about 20 pounds during the rehearsal process, a tall order for the naturally wiry actor, and enough that even Spielberg begged him to stop. “Then Steven was like, ‘Okay, you’re done. You’ve got to stop, stop where you’re at, because it’s getting crazy,'” Faist said with a laugh.

But Faist also wanted to get inside Riff’s mind and heart, reading up on the gang culture of the late ’50s and early ’60s to really understand how Riff’s life might have actually felt to the Jets leader. “I think we all understand, for the most part, the mentality of gangs and how gangs get formed and the tribalism of it all,” he said. “Really, it’s the lack of opportunity that exists in low-income areas. And that is a story that’s been true since the beginning. If you don’t have opportunities in front of you, you become desperate and you find opportunities where you can, and if some group comes up to you and says, ‘Well, we will protect you and we will look after you,’ you’re going to probably do that. People are naturally drawn to some sort of protective group in place.”

That’s why building a relationship with the rest of the Jets was essential to Faist, who said he basically spent all of the summer of 2019 with his on-screen gang. “One of the things that we did early on was decide collectively we were going to do these ‘Jet-tivities,’ which is what I call them, and so everyone got to decide one activity that they wanted to do. No matter what it was, we all had to do it,” the actor said. “We just kind of ran wild that summer in the city, doing these insane things with each other. There wasn’t a single day that summer where, in some form or fashion, we were not all together. We were always together.”

The Jets rented a house upstate, including one weekend when they hosted the Sharks and another weekend alone. But keeping up a frisson of competition with the rival Sharks was also important, and one particular Jet-tivity hinged on doing just that.

Mike Faist as Riff and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“West Side Story”Niko Tavernise

“This was a good one that I think maybe I came up with,” Faist said. “There was a day, it was like some holiday, maybe it was like Sweetheart Day, one of those made-up ones, and I pooled all the money from the Jets and we bought roses for all the Jet women in the cast, but also all the Shark women in the cast, too. When we showed up for dance rehearsal that morning, we rolled in as the Jets and handed all these flowers out, not only to our girls, but also to the Sharks’ girls, and the Shark men are all just standing there empty-handed, looking foolish a little bit.” Pure Riff.

While “West Side Story” might signal Faist’s big screen breakout, the actor already pulled off a similar trick on the small screen just a few months ago, when he notched his first lead role on the short-lived teen Amazon series “Panic.” While the series was cancelled after just one season, Faist’s work on the show earned him new acclaim and attention, and even a New York Times profile to boot.

In the May profile, Faist wrestles with the nature of his career, the rapidly evolving state of it, and what — if anything — he might expect from the future. In the months since the piece was published, Faist’s take on his life and what’s to come has changed.

“It’s hard, I don’t know, because expectations be damned!” he said. “I think that’s maybe one thing we’ve all kind of come to terms with during the pandemic. We make plans and God laughs. I do this every now and then, I think this is just kind of naturally who I am, I question where all of this ends for me. To what end am I doing this? Why am I doing this? What am I trying to get out of it? What am I trying to say? What am I trying to do?”

Those are questions he’s still asking, though perhaps now through a different lens. Mostly, he said, one thing remains true: He wants to be part of something bigger, something meaningful. “Shooting ‘West Side’ really was a joyous experience, and to use the term that Tony Kushner has said in interviews that I’ve read of his, we felt like stewards,” the actor said. “There’s no better feeling in the world than being a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. I also said in that Times article that I want to just feel like I’m of use or I’m of service, and I think very easily in this industry, it could become some sort of a ‘look at me’ kind of a thing. I just don’t care about that.”

Mike Faist as Riff and Ansel Elgort as Tony in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“West Side Story”Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

And, newly minted fans and long-time admirers alike, never fear, he’s not quitting acting. “I also said in that interview that I wasn’t sure if I hated acting or if I loved it too much,” he said. “It does fall somewhere in between there, but the truth is that I really do love it. I really care about it. I really care about the craft of it all. I care about how I feel when I do it. For me, it’s always chasing that experience, because the end product, people may like it, people may not. That’s out of my control. All I can just do is keep putting out work that I really believe in. It’s about making things that I think I can share with people, that I think are right.”

Faist pointed to an Andy Warhol quote — he worried he was butchering it, but the sentiment was clear — that he thinks speaks to his own philosophy: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

“You just have to keep moving forward,” Faist said. “These moments, they come, they’re precious, but don’t be precious about them, because they come and go. Enjoy the moment, but keep going.” He paused to laugh, everything coming full circle. “I mean, there’s a song about that in ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ from Stephen Sondheim!,” he said. “You’ve got to just keep moving on.” Faist, it seems, is only moving up.

A Disney release, “West Side Story” is now in theaters. 

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